Not long ago, Rachna Jhina Sharma helped her eight-year-old daughter with a school essay on water conservation — ‘Imagine your life without water’.
“I struggled so much then to think of all that can go wrong. Now, I only have to look around me… I could write a full chapter,” says Sharma, 37, a homemaker at Kasumpti locality in Shimla. “Look Araina,” she says, calling out to her daughter. “If there is no running water in the tap, how will we wash our utensils? No washing… no cooking. Our house will be dirty and unhygienic. Isn’t that a health hazard?” the political science graduate asks her daughter, who, now that the homework has long been dealt with, doesn’t look particularly interested.
Barring a day’s “irregular” supply, the taps in her home have been dry for the last 12 days. “I have lived in Shimla all my life, but never seen a crisis this severe. These days, I invariably wake up in the middle of the night, and the thought of sending my daughter to school in her unwashed uniform keeps me up. Running the house has become a nightmare,” she says.
Since May 18, Shimla has faced an unprecedented water crisis, with supply from the Shimla Municipal Corporation crashing to 18.64 million litres a day on May 27, the lowest this season. Localities such as Kasumpti, which has several multi-storeyed buildings, both residential and commercial, have been the worst hit. The first hint of the crisis came in April, when the corporation introduced water rationing, supplying on alternate days.
Sharma and her family of four, including her ailing 70-year old father-in-law, have been living in Kasumpti since 2004. A portion of their two-storey house has been let out to two tenants. Until this latest crisis, the Sharmas would store the corporation’s daily water supply in four overhead tankers, “enough to ensure water 24 X 7 for us and the tenants”.
On May 31, close to two weeks since the crisis began, Sharma looks relaxed as she sits by her dining table. “Today, I feel confident. I have four buckets of water,” she says.
A day earlier, the corporation had sent a tanker to the locality, the first since the crisis began. Sharma had then run up to the tanker, parked 500 metres from her house, with her four empty buckets. “It took me two hours to fill two buckets. After that, I went to the end of the line, and it took me another hour to fill two buckets. I managed to get two more — so six in all,” she says, triumphantly. “My husband was out that day and I had to carry all the buckets back. But I was glad just to see water.”
For the last 10 days, Sharma’s husband Gaurav, 41, who runs a property business, has been driving up to the bowari (a small natural source of water) in the town’s periphery and bringing back water in 20-litre plastic containers.
“We use that water in the washrooms,” says Sharma, adding that they have been buying 20-litre water cans at Rs 130 each for drinking and cooking. “There have been days without a drop of water in the washroom and the kitchen. I have struggled to pack Araina’s tiffin for school. I fill her school bottle with bottled water. Sometimes there is no water for her to brush her teeth and wash her face. I was literally in tears one day when I saw my child going to school after skipping her bath and in her unwashed uniform,” says Sharma.
Her day begins with a bucket of water. That’s all she usually has in her kitchen to start her day. “I can’t afford to use more than two mugs of water to do the dishes from the previous night. I have told my help not to come. She uses a lot more water. I need to save at least half a bucket for cooking and other domestic chores,” she says, adding that the family has been using paper plates and disposable cups for the past one week.
After breakfast, there’s lunch to worry about. “Sometimes, we borrow water from neighbours who have large drums. Keeping the house clean and the washroom hygienic has been tough, especially with a patient around at home,” she says.
From his bed, Sharma’s father-in-law B P Sharma, a senior High Court lawyer, who has just been discharged after a 49-day hospital stay, says, “In my 70 years, I have never seen anything like this. Shimla’s unplanned urbanisation is the root cause of this water shortage. The city has expanded without a proper plan. Until the late ’60s, I remember, Shimla’s Mall Road would be washed with water.”
Shimla, a city built in the 19th century for 25,000 to 30,000 people, today has a permanent population of 1,72,000 and a floating tourist population of almost a lakh. The present water crisis, which is being attributed to unplanned growth, besides a 70 per cent deficit in rains and scanty snowfall last winter, has come at the peak of the tourist season, forcing hoteliers to cancel reservations.
Sharma says they have had their share of cancellations too. “Some of our relatives from Delhi wanted to visit us this vacation, but we told them point-blank, ‘Please don’t come. We have no water’.”